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US expands Navy presence in Caribbean. Is military action against Maduro more likely?

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Carolina Cabral/Getty Images/TNS)

When President Donald Trump weighed the options earlier last year to address the political and humanitarian consequences of Nicolás Maduro’s tight grip on power in Venezuela, he realized his harsh rhetoric against the South American leader was not backed up by a show of force in the region.

That was corrected Wednesday, as Trump, surrounded by the country’s top officials, announced an expanded military presence near the Venezuelan shores that had been unseen for decades.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, National Security Council Director Robert O’Brien and Attorney General William Barr all said during the press conference that the additional military is meant to crack down on “counternarcotics operations,” but is also aimed at denying funds to Maduro and his closest allies, who have been recently indicted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

“When we started the maximum pressure policy in January, the president analyzed what our military assets were in the Western Hemisphere because obviously, all the options were and are on the table,” a senior administration official told the Miami Herald.

“There was no balance; most of our assets were in the Middle East, Asia, etc., so he asked to recalibrate those assets to have the necessary presence in the hemisphere to see where this situation was going” regarding Venezuela, he added.

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The move was in line with Trump’s longtime belief that the U.S. should not spend resources on faraway regions, the official said.

The shift from considering Maduro “illegitimate” to being publicly labeled a “narco-terrorist” provided a rationale for the military moves, despite government data suggesting Venezuela is not a primary transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine.

The official also cited the destabilization that the Venezuelan political and humanitarian crises have caused in the region, with millions of Venezuelans overwhelming neighboring countries such as Colombia, as another imperative to expand U.S. military presence in the hemisphere.

Colombian President Iván Duque was one of the loudest voices asking for more support to deal with the migrants but also with the “narco-terrorists” of Colombia’s two main guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, both harbored by Maduro in Venezuela.

Esper published a list of the forces mobilized for the mission, including Navy destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, Navy littoral combat ships, helicopters, Navy P-8 patrol aircraft, along with Air Force E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS to carry out airborne surveillance, control, and communications.

The operation includes security forces assistance brigades. At the press conference Wednesday, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were “thousands” of sailors, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers, airmen and Marines involved.

Some experts have been surprised by some of the assets mobilized to the region.

“There is some serious military hardware listed here,” said Adam Isaacson, the director of the Defense Oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“I can’t recall the last time there were U.S. Navy destroyers in the Caribbean or the eastern Pacific coast (on operations, not exercises). And each E-3 AWACS plane costs more than a quarter-billion dollars,” he said on Twitter.

According to the U.S. Southern Command, in charge of carrying out the operation in the Caribbean and the Pacific Eastern coast, those aircraft have been in use in the region.

“AWACs is one of the aircraft we have used to conduct detection and monitoring operations in the past,” José Ruiz, a media relations officer at Southcom, told the Miami Herald. “Insofar as Navy ships are concerned, flight-deck capable ships are one of the assets that comprise the kind of force package that enables the disruption of illicit drugs flowing into the U.S.”

Such Coast Guard “force packages” — patrol aircraft, ships with flight decks, helicopters and law enforcement detachments — are standard in counternarcotics operations, Ruiz said.

Southcom’s commander, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, has been advocating for more resources for counternarcotics operations in Central and South America. In a congressional hearing in March, he announced that U.S. military presence would increase in the region in terms of ships, aircraft, and security forces to “reassure partners” in combating “illicit narco-terrorism.”

News of the operation has unsettled Venezuelan leaders and revived hopes within the Venezuelan population that a U.S. military action against Maduro is in the making.

On Thursday, Maduro’s No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, made threats on live TV against the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition, in particular leader Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly who is recognized by the U.S. and nearly 60 countries as the legitimate president of the country.

Cuba echoed the concern.

“The military operation announced by the U.S. government involving deployment of warships near Venezuela and special troops movements is a serious threat to the peace of all in the region,” Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, said on Twitter. “Alleged combating of drug trafficking is just an opportunistic pretext.”

The senior Trump administration official reiterated that the operation sends a strong warning to Maduro, whom he urged to cooperate with the Department of Justice and the administration to find a negotiated solution.

“The choices here are cooperation or confrontation, and confrontation never ends well,” he said. “We hope common sense would prevail because our goal is still a democratic transition. But now we’re not even dealing with a regime but with a cartel.”

In theory, the fact that there are more military assets in the region would make a military action against Maduro more feasible, the official said. But just because military assets can be used in different missions does not mean a military option is the current policy, U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told reporters on Thursday.

Some critics of current U.S. foreign policy believe the administration is overselling the operation’s link to the situation in Venezuela, using what appears as a legitimate operation to combat drug trafficking.

“The type of military deployment announced is consistent with a counternarcotics operation, and even with that enhanced presence, the number of seizures would still be small,” said Frank Mora, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere under Barack Obama.

“It is a total political manipulation to suggest that you could carry out a naval blockade or a military intervention with those assets,” Mora said. “The deployment is significant compared with what we have before, but only because we had so little.”

In congressional testimony in January, Faller said Southcom only had capabilities to interdict “about nine% of known drug movement.”

“In an area the size of the United States, we’ve been working between six and eight ships,” Faller said in a press briefing in March. “So we’ve been consistently saying the number we need to cover that zone is much larger, and so that was part of the rationale for the additional force packages we will be receiving.”

Mora also doubts that some of the assets sent to the region would stay for long. Gen. Milley said that the Navy sent additional combat ships from the U.S. Pacific and European Commands and the naval fleet at Norfolk.

“I’m sure those commanders would like their ships back,” Mora said.

Southcom declined to discuss the cost, timeline, and other details of the Caribbean mission due to “operational security reasons.”

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© 2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.